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A Secular Age
by charles taylor
belknap, 896 pages, $39.95

Much about the new atheism that has emerged in the past few years seems tedious and overhyped. The worst of it, however, may be the sheer amount of cultural oxygen squandered on reenactments of old debates. Evidently a segment of the Anglo-American public has a boundless appetite for heroic restagings of Inherit the Wind and fireside retellings of the war between science and religion.

The fact of the matter, however, is that for quite a long time several far more interesting questions have been on the table. Chief among them are the questions addressed by Charles Taylor in his sprawling, ambitious, exasperating, confusing, and profoundly important new book, A ­Secular Age.

Defining secularism has always been a challenge, but it seems to have become all the more so in our own age: a moment in which it is unclear whether secularism is victorious, embattled, still on the march, or on the brink of defeat. Such uncertainties reflect our shifting understandings. Is secularism the final culmination of modernity’s demythologizing—the stripping away of the false ideas and crippling stories that have stood in the way of a mature humanity’s entry into full possession of itself? Or is ­secularism merely our own myth—the all-swaddling web of novel enchantments that offers us a different kind of veiling? Or is it something more modest and tentative—a neutral and procedural posture, content with keeping the peace and directing ­traffic?

Taylor eventually takes on all these matters but does so obliquely, choosing to begin with a deceptively simple question: “What does it mean to say that we live in a secular age?” As he works his way through the book, the query becomes more specific: “Why is it so hard to believe in God in the modern West,” he asks, “while in 1500 it was virtually impossible not to?”

The phrasing of these questions is a clue to what Taylor is after. A Secular Age is not primarily interested in examining what might be called political or legal secularism: the role of laïcité in France, for instance, or the constitutional separation of church and state in America. Neither is it much concerned with what might be called philosophical or theological secularism, the gradual recession of religious practices and beliefs in modern countries.

Instead, Taylor invites us to consider a third meaning of secularism, based on the texture of the world as we actually experience it. This third way derives from the conditions under which we moderns approach the problem of belief and unbelief. A society is secular, he explains, when it arrives at a settled moral order in which belief in God is no longer regarded as something automatic, axiomatic, and socially obligatory. Instead it is regarded as a choice that one makes for oneself—something freely chosen in a way that would have been unthinkable in an earlier time.

This conception of secularity is closely related to the other two, for it exists alongside the political institutions and intellectual freedoms that make such choices possible. But the inner life of secularism is what interests Taylor, the “whole context of understanding in which our moral, spiritual, or religious experience and search take place.” That context is chiefly “the conditions of experience,” including the deep structuring of the yearnings, expectations, and assumptions in our prelogical and prelinguistic mental apparatus. For Taylor, our commitment to secularism has come about largely as a ­product of an unfolding inner development: less a revolution of ideas than an evolution of sensibility.

Taylor, in other words, has developed a psychological or social sense of secularism. It is concerned not with the effects of conscious beliefs but with the things that come before conscious beliefs. The approach is therefore more bottom-up than top-down: “We have to understand the differences between these options,” Taylor asserts, “not just in terms of creeds, but also in terms of differences of experience and sensibility.”

That’s why A Secular Age takes such an oblique route into its subject. Taylor finds profoundly inadequate the standard view that secularism was a direct and inevitable consequence of the rise of modern science—rejecting, as he does, all efforts to account for modernity as a “subtraction story,” a simple liberation from prior confinements and a sloughing off of preexisting superstitions and illusions.

Instead, Taylor argues, the secularity of our world should be seen as “the fruit of new invention”—a reconfiguration of consciousness and a product of our own choices. As he puts it, “The story of a rejection of the old, unchanging religion, which uncovers and releases the perennial human, is wrong on both counts. Reinvention, innovation exist on both sides, and continuing mutual influence links them.”

To make a case for this view, ­Taylor is obliged to put forward an alternative narrative about how the present secular condition came to be. The story goes something like this: At the outset of the human story, religion was “naive” and the world was permeated with spirits. Individual self-consciousness was nonexistent, for the “porous” self remained open to the currents of external influence, unable to discern clear boundaries between self and nonself, or make clear distinctions between personal agency and impersonal force. Unbelief under such circumstances was literally unthinkable. The individual was thoroughly embedded in a world in which there was no distinction between the profane and the sacred, or the immanent and the transcendent. The sense of social and cosmic order pervaded all things, from the lowest to the highest.

Then came what Taylor (following Karl Jaspers) calls the Axial Revolution, when religions such as Christianity and Buddhism appeared and drew a line of separation between higher and lower, sacred and profane, heaven and earth, sacred time and worldly time. These divisions necessitated the creation of new “social imaginaries”—a term Taylor uses for an era’s grand conceptualizations of the world’s shape and moral structure. The once-unitary world was now sundered, divided between a disordered lower realm and a higher realm toward which individuals were to strive to conform themselves.

Such a moral division of the world had the effect of implanting in people a perpetual goad toward moral improvement, which Taylor dubs “Reform.” Moreover, it had the effect of destabilizing the world they used to perceive—and thus helped to bring about “the Great Disembedding,” in which the oneness of the individual with his social and cosmic environments was displaced and the seeds of Western individualism were planted.

Taylor is not very fastidious about constructing timelines or coordinating disparate sets of events. But the general drift of things for him is fairly clear. As the distinction between self and nature—and self and society—became increasingly crisp and vivid, we see the replacement of the “porous” self with a “buffered identity,” a self that imagines itself as capable of standing apart from the pervasive influence of the physical and social worlds, shielded and distinct. The buffered self’s growing adeptness in the manipulation of nature led to the replacement of immanent notions of the divine, which could only serve to complicate the work of autonomous individuals, with the majestic but less interfering notion of “God as Designer,” the Supreme Being of “Providential Deism.”

The rise of science and the “disenchantment of the world” were part, but only a part, of this process. Taylor also emphasizes a variety of other factors: the steady decline of popular piety and other communal and ritual aspects of religion, for instance, and the growth of a reform-minded elite religious culture, which sought to pare away such irrational embarrassments, systematize theology, and focus greater attention on moral self-improvement.

The effect was to lessen Christianity’s communitarian dimension and accentuate its individual dimension. The Protestant Reformation was perhaps the most salient expression of that tendency, but in many ways it was less a cause than an effect of forces much older and more pervasive. “Disenchantment, Reform, and personal religion went together,” asserts Taylor. “Just as a church was most perfect when each of its members adhered to it on their own individual responsibility”—a tendency most notable in places like colonial New England—“so society itself comes to be reconceived as made up of individuals.”

This now disembedded society was governed by an ethos of “mutual benefit,” which gradually edged out the social hierarchies and complementarities that had prevailed well into the axial age. The modern moral order was like the modern economy, in which the free and spontaneous interplay of intersecting forces was guided, as by an invisible hand, toward general benefit, its nonteleological individualism being kept in line by a vague but powerful ethos of “politeness.”

Most important, the Great Disembedding had the effect of greatly complicating human happiness and flourishing. If one presumes, as Taylor does, that human beings are motivated by a yearning to experience a “sense of fullness,” of living in a way that is integrated and harmonious and joyous, then the assumptions one makes about the underlying order of things become all-important.

In the earlier age of the porous self, such a sense of fullness was coextensive with one’s social context and would not normally be experienced as a separate object of aspiration. But in a postaxial environment, particularly as the sense of individuality began to congeal, the relation between the two grew complicated. Christianity introduced a fundamental tension between the experience of fullness in the context of secular time and the more profound fulfillment found in obedience to God. There were cultural variations on this theme, and there were ways that renunciation could be understood as a higher form of flourishing. But the point is that in the axial dispensation there was always “a good beyond simple human flourishing.”

Then came the halfway house of Providential Deism, under whose roof God’s presence and influence were, little by little, removed from the ordinary world. As Taylor points out, this happened for a variety of reasons. In part it came from growing confidence in natural reason but also from currents deep within the Christian tradition. These currents had been brought out and stressed by the Protestant Reformers—as, for instance, in the honoring of ordinary, nonheroic life, with its vocations of work and family.

Along the way, a more general anthropocentric shift in theology and moral philosophy occurred, epitomized by writers as different as Matthew Tindal and Frances Hutcheson (and even, in his way, Benjamin Franklin), that inclined people to the view that there was a reliable moral sense already grounded in nature, so that service to God and pursuit of one’s own good were essentially the same thing, and a radical transformation of the human condition by divine force majeure was neither likely nor necessary.

These changes happened on many different fronts, often in subtle ways. For example, the rise of social-­contract theories of political society powerfully reinforced a strictly secular understanding of time, since such theories presumed that legitimate civil societies were those properly founded and sustained in ordinary historical time by the acts of ordinary men, rather than being established in sacred extrahistorical time by heroic founders and sustained by divinely sanctioned rulers. Such “radical horizontality” contributed to the sense that God is an abstraction. To be sure, God was still seen as the Creator, still worthy of our awe and reverence, but God’s providence is, as Taylor puts it, “strictly generic,” meaning that “particular providences, and miracles, are out.” To put it bluntly, God is largely irrelevant to our day-to-day conduct—and irrelevant to our choices about the means of individual flourishing.

Gradually, by a succession of smaller steps, this state of affairs led to modern secularity, where we see for the first time in human history a form of “exclusive humanism” that accepts “no final goals beyond human flourishing, not any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing.” There is no more grounding of the political or social sphere in “higher time,” since the overwhelming “horizontal” texture of such a world simply crowds out the transcendent and the sacred, or renders them extraneous.

This move to exclusive humanism is for Taylor the crucial move to secularity, but his narrative is insistent that the pathway to it was paved by a number of antecedents, going all the way back to the axial introduction of Christianity itself. In the end, for Taylor the crucial source of the modern turn toward secularity was not science’s demolition of religion but modernity’s construction of the individual. Indeed, Taylor is convinced that secularism and Christianity still share a great many lines of descent and are not as antithetical as they seem.

That, in turn, causes Taylor to pose an interesting question: Can there be unbelief without religion, or without a religious point of view that is being negated? After all, our understanding of ourselves as secular is undergirded by a powerful conviction that “we have come to be that way through overcoming and rising out of earlier modes of belief.”

In other words, we have liberated ourselves. Will not God and theism therefore remain a necessary reference point? It may be possible to imagine a society in which the idea of God would not even have been a discarded image, never having been on offer at all. But such a society would clearly be very different from the one we actually inhabit, or any we are likely to experience in the foreseeable future. Part of the passion animating the new atheists is their sense of themselves as “having overcome” the foolish and destructive irrationalities of the past. Without that sense, their passion—and perhaps the cogency of their project itself—recedes.

And, by the same token, any recovery of faith in our time is going to have to define itself consciously within an “immanent frame” and over against the cultural predominance of unbelief. There is no longer any such thing as naive belief. (Even traditionalists choose tradition and say that they do so because they are comfortable with it.) This is precisely what Taylor is describing in his third secularity: a “two-tiered perfect-tensedness,” a condition in which the position now taken is partly defined by the condition that once was—and both conditions remain available. Atheism is not going away, but neither is its antagonist. That, according to Taylor, is where we are.

Charles Taylor has always been a profoundly historical thinker; and so, in A Secular Age, it matters greatly how we arrived at exclusive humanism, because the particular form it has taken was heavily conditioned by the particular freedoms it sought to secure, as well as by the religious establishments it sought to weaken.

Unsurprisingly, religion’s antagonists bear a more than passing resemblance to the religious people they opposed. “How could the immense force of religion in human life in that age be countered,” Taylor asks, “except by using a modality of the most powerful ­ethical ideas, which this religion itself had helped to entrench?”

He notes, for example, the curious fact that there are certain unbelieving modern writers—Camus, for instance, and Beckett, Heidegger, and Mallarmé—who have a particularly strong appeal to believers. Taylor does not try to explain this (nor does he speak of the appeal of Dostoyevsky and Pascal and O’Connor to unbelievers, a movement in the other direction), but he insists that it has something to do with his master theme: The questing spirit and moral seriousness of the Christian intellectual and moral tradition are rendered in the work of these writers, even when their outlook is dark and unbelieving. Implicitly, they agree with the post-axial believers that secular flourishing is not the only proper end of life.

These literary examples show why Taylor is so insistent on seeing belief and unbelief in our time as interpenetrating phenomena. “Religion remains ineradicably on the horizon of areligion,” he insists, “and vice versa.” Unbelief would be untenable without the moral and metaphysical capital created and banked by the belief it displaced.

But religion itself, he argues, was heavily responsible for the predicament in which it finds itself, by throwing aside the deeper satisfactions of mystery and ritual experienced within corporate worship in favor of a relentless emphasis on the personal holiness and discipline of increasingly buffered identities, operating individualistically and instrumentally in a desacralized world. Given such misturnings, it was inevitable that we would eventually find ourselves living inside the same immanent frame, the home address of secularism. The chief remaining difference is between those who wish to understand that condition as being final and closed, and those who still contend that it can be open to transcendent experience.

So where does Charles Taylor, an avowed Catholic and an exceptionally fair-minded philosopher with a wide range of sympathies, stand in all this? His heart seems to be most fully drawn to something he calls “the Jamesean open space,” a condition of exhilarated ambivalence at the “mid-point of the cross-pressures that define our culture,” the place “where you can feel the winds pulling you now to belief, now to unbelief,” and where you can feel fully the force of both sides of the problem. Taylor is far too modest to claim to have achieved anything like this kind of comprehensive suspension, but he leaves little doubt that he regards it as a very high and enlightened state, one to which one’s aspirations could be worthily attached.

I am not so sure, and the point constitutes a serious weakness in Taylor’s book. Leaving aside whether William James himself would have countenanced such an elective limbo, one wonders why this condition of Jamesean openness is not better described as a logical extension of many of the same forces that Taylor has spent his book warning against. It is an appealing position for a modern academic, since it ensures that there can always be the possibility of conversation and engagement with ­colleagues of whatever variety. But for the corporate life of the Church, it is the ultimate subjectivization and individualization of religion, a move that makes the idea of ­common worship unattainable. It ensures that churches will always be ­churches of one believer, thoroughly disembodied and excarnate in character. It seems to forget that, for believers, God is not a problematic concept but the source of the most powerful interdictions imaginable.

Taylor invariably presents orthodoxy, and the effort to establish it, as a distortion, even mutilation, of the Church’s mission in the world and an expression of the dead hand of reform. The Church, he says, was “meant to be the place in which human beings, in all their difference and disparate itineraries, come together; and in this regard we are obviously falling far short.” But this is clearly not an accurate description of what his own church is meant to be. The Church exists on the high side of the axial divide, and Taylor has the blind spot of so many of our modern communitarians in thinking that a community, ecclesial or otherwise, can thrive in the absence of some kind of consensus about principles, ideas, and values.

Orthodoxy can be carried to an extreme, of course, as can antinomianism. But a critical mass of consciously shared and historically grounded belief and practice is the absolutely necessary basis of healthy community—in a church or anyplace else. Moreover, a respect for orthodoxy shows a high regard for the past, which stands profoundly in opposition to the memoryless and rootless radical individualism of our day—and it is radical individualism, more than any other single factor, that is the villain of A Secular Age.

None of this, however, can change the fact that ­Taylor has written a genuinely fresh and imaginative meditation on the religious conditions of our times, a book that will surely be read and discussed for many years to come. Near the book’s end, Taylor observes that “we are just at the beginning of a new age of religious searching, whose outcome no one can foresee.” Indeed, he insists, “our age is very far from settling in to a comfortable unbelief.” Take these two lines together, and you have a large part of Taylor’s signal contribution in this book. It should even please the new atheists, if they can just put their triumphalism behind them. For, if Taylor is right, it will be a long, long time before they are out of work.

Wilfred M. McClay holds the SunTrust Chair of Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Image by Hannes Richter licensed via Unsplash. Image cropped.